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Urban Meyer Knows What He’s Getting Into in Jacksonville

The former Florida and Ohio State coach is likely jumping to the NFL for the first time, but he’s been doing his homework for years.

I think Urban Meyer, who is closing in on a deal with the Jaguars, knows what he’s getting himself into.

I think he understands he won’t get the equivalent of 15 first-round picks every four years or so, the way he did at Florida and Ohio State, which allowed him to stack the deck and make it impossible for 90% of his competition to run with him. I think he gets that losing five games in a year is a good season in the NFL, coming from an environment where a single loss can essentially be season-ending (see: 2009 Florida, ’15 and ’18 Ohio State).

I think all this, by the way, because I know how deeply he’s studied the NFL, and how his opinion of it is colored with a realistic view of the gap from team to team in the pros. And all that came up when he and I talked last spring about his NFL research.

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Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports

“The best thing I did, I called a bunch of our former athletes,” he said. “I just asked them, ‘Tell me about the culture, tell me about the team meetings, tell me about the expectations, the work ethic, the accountability. I had an idea, but what’s amazing to me is when I hear the media and the fans, and even others say the reason they’re losing is because they have bad players. That’s one of the most nonsensical things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I mean, they’re NFL players.

“There’s not a bad player in the NFL. Now, you have superstars, some might not be the right fit, they might have some character flaws, there might be some stuff going on. But to use the term ‘bad player’? And I hear that as an excuse. ‘Hey, he’s a bad quarterback.’ What are you talking about? Because I’ve heard that, and I used to get angry when they’d say that about our players. I’d hear someone say that: ‘Alex Smith is a bad player.’

“He was the best thing I’d been around when he came out of Utah. Then I do the homework and find out what it is. It’s certainly not bad players. There are certain organizations that win every year. There are certain organizations that can’t win, yet they have better players on paper than the other organizations, because they draft before them every year. Every year. So I’d challenge everyone, ‘When you say they’re a bad player, what, are you out of your mind?’ They’re not bad players.”

Meyer was just getting rolling, in explaining what, as he sees it, it is.

“Culture and criteria,” he continued. “There’s two things you have to do. Number one, develop and implement a culture in your organization. And it’s gotta be a culture: This is the way it is, nonnegotiable. And then the other thing is talent acquisition. How are you acquiring talent? What’s your criteria? Is everyone on the same page? And what I found out, those who win, that’s it. Those who fail to win, that’s it.

“It’s not whether they run the zone or the stretch play, or the three-level passing vs. the crossing routes. I know people think that’s it. Yeah, that’s fun. That’s intriguing. But that’s not why certain teams win. You walk in the locker room and you know why they win. And you talk to your players who are in those organizations and you know exactly why they win. Because the head coach and GM, and everyone, are aligned with culture and talent acquisition.”

See? It’s all there. A very clear-headed perspective on the talent disparity in the NFL from one team to the next and one player to another. An acknowledgement of how competitive the league is. And a well-developed opinion on what separates the great coaches and team-builders from the pack in a league where winning happens for those who own the margins.

Meyer is ready for the challenge of the NFL, because he knows what the challenge is.

So you can save the questions on whether he gets that he won’t have Percy Harvin being covered by a soon-to-be insurance salesman or Joey Bosa being blocked by a guy with a professional future in finance. He does. And the above feeling on what it takes to win in the NFL can fully illustrate for you why the process of accepting the job was a process for Meyer—out of respect for what he believed he’d need to win, based on all that research he did.

It’s why he hasn’t just reached through his Rolodex to line up a coaching staff, but also support staff in areas like strength and conditioning and player development, to build a program that’s holistic, and goes far beyond running cover-3 vs. man. It’s also almost certainly why his asks for facilities upgrades were vital—he knows how much he’ll be asking players to invest and wants to make sure he can show the same investment in them.

And frankly, it’s exactly what the Jaguars need. Jacksonville isn’t an offensive guru away from winning. The organization needs a top-to-bottom housecleaning, the way Buffalo did when Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane arrived in 2017. That means eradicating what one long-time team employee called a “9-to-5 culture” in the building and, really, that can be done only by taking the thing down to the studs, like McDermott and Beane did.

That requires more than a coach; it requires a change agent. That’s exactly what Meyer has been wherever he’s gone, even shaking up the identity of bluebloods like Florida and Ohio State, where some argued tweaks over total turnover would’ve been sufficient. Meyer took both programs to another level as a result.

But does that mean it’ll 100% work? It does not. Because while some of the FAQs on Meyer’s NFL viability are easier to answer than you might think, others are not—and, no, it won’t be as simple as Meyer rolling out his old program to extend a record of winning that’s nothing short of bonkers (187–32, and two or fewer losses in 12 of his last 15 seasons coaching).

That starts with how difficult his program is, which is demanding in the way Nick Saban’s is (which wasn’t a roaring success in the NFL) and Bill Belichick’s is (which has been). The key? The key will be how quickly he can give older players results. Saban’s ways grated on Dolphins players after Miami chose Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees and the losses mounted. Belichick, conversely, won a Super Bowl in his second year in New England, which gave him license to point to the trophy case if anyone complained.

This goes back to a saying Meyer continually pushed on his coaches in Columbus: theory over testimony. At the college level, Meyer had testimony. At the NFL, he doesn’t yet. He just has theory, and he’ll have to sell it and then earn the testimony before his message grows stale, which is a fight any hard-driving old-school coach faces in the NFL.

Next, there’ll be the composition and buy-in of his staff. I doubt he’ll be the play-caller, and he’s far more culture-setter than scheme-maker at this point of his life. But he has principles in what he wants done and how to get there, and he’d have oversight on offense even if he wasn’t in the weeds. He’d want to know why a play was being run, just like he’d want to know why a drill was on the practice script—and the answer couldn’t ever be simply because that’s how a coach has always done it.

That’s why it makes sense to see names like ex–Texas coach Charlie Strong, ex–Rutgers coach Chris Ash, Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and Colorado State coach Steve Addazio (and support-staff names like Ohio State’s Ryan Stamper) in the pipeline for jobs with Meyer. They’re steeped in his ways and would know what to expect. But a number of guys who know Meyer well caution he’ll absolutely need NFL-experienced coaches on staff to make it work, and how those people adapt to the program will be key.

Then there’s Meyer himself. He’s 57. His health issues are real. They originally surfaced during a 13–1 year at Florida and resurfaced during a 13–1 campaign at Ohio State, which raises the question of how he’d handle, say, a 6–10 first year in Jacksonville—which would mark a five-game year-over-year improvement.

“Fourth-and-one with the game on the line, that’s how he lives his life,” said one of his ex-assistants.

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That brings us back to the truth—in that way, he’s 100% what Jacksonville needs, someone to shake up a building where a punch-the-clock ethos has weighed down the football operation forever. In buying into Meyer, they’re getting a guy who won’t tolerate that, and good for the Jaguars for seeing they need it.

In fact, during our extended talk about the NFL in April, Meyer said something that spoke directly to all of that, when I asked whether there was a program he liked in particular.

“The New Orleans Saints, because we have so many players down there, and they all say the same thing. It’s like our practices, Coach. It’s so competitive. Every day is a competitive situation,” Meyer said. “And then I’ve talked to other ones. I talked to one, and they never have team meetings. I go, What’s the culture of the program? He says, I’ve got no idea. We just show up and we go to our position meetings. It’s incredible.”

Jacksonville won’t have that problem anymore.

That doesn’t mean Meyer’s going to be a roaring success. But it’s a start.

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